Napoleon said of Jesus, “Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible term of comparison. He is truly a being by himself…I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ or anything which can approach the gospel. Neither history, nor humanity, nor the ages, nor nature, offer me anything with which I am able to compare it or to explain it. Here everything is extraordinary”(p. 83-Yancy)
Some of us first met him in a children’s Sunday School class where he had long flowing hair, a complexion that bordered on porcelain, hands unmarked by the hardships of life, and a countenance that seemed to be basked in a glow that reflected heaven’s energy, or something like that. And yet, this nice gentleman was executed. What government would execute Mr. Rogers or Captain Kangaroo? Who was this man?
Others of us first met Jesus in a musical in the 60s. We saw him as a wild-eyed revolutionary who baffled the intelligentsia of the day, developed a band of wild-eyed followers, and ended his life with a mob scene and an unruly death. He was reviled as a winebibber and glutton and a disturber of the peace—this by the religious establishment! And yet, with all this, history is marked into two halves by the recognition of his birth. Who was this man?
Finally, others of us have only heard His name at the front end of the word Christ. We don’t know much about Him, but what we do know about is people who say they follow Him. And the picture that has painted for us has not been good. We’ve known Christians who were meaner, more dishonest, and more obnoxious than most. We hear about them fighting with each other, and we wonder why they even bother. Who was this man?
After all this, who is Jesus anyway? Who was He? Why Did He Come? What difference does it make, if any, to my world, on the edge of the 21st century? Surely Jesus does not fit our typical picture. C.S. Lewis said, “He was not at all like the psychologists picture of the integrated, balanced, adjusted, happily married, employed, popular citizen. You can’t really be very well ‘adjusted’ to your world if it says you ‘have a devil’ and ends by nailing you up naked to a stake of wood”(p. 90, Yancy).
The Jesus of the Bible is neither boring nor predictable
This week and next, I’d like to lead us into answers to the questions I just posed: Who is Jesus? As I do, we’re going to consult the 4 books of the Bible called the Gospels. They tell the Jesus story in rich detail. It is in these 4 gospels that we find an unvarnished picture of the man from the first century that has affected the course of time every since. Join with me as we see the story, fresh and new.
What are the images you have in your mind about the birth of Jesus? Do you see angelic visitors(looking like early day Fabios?) with gold flaxen hair and playing trumpets on cue? A sweet young girl, huddling protectively with her newborn child in a stable with clean hay, fresh water, and a host of important guests? Let’s square that with the Biblical story..
Luke 1:26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her,” Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Imagine the difficulty of Mary in the first century, in a tight knit small Jewish community. Tragically, in our day, the shock of birth outside of marriage has diminished. But, for Mary’s world, it meant shame and humiliation. It meant being “put away” from family, friends, and any hope of the future. Yet, the angel also appeared to Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, and he was convinced to not abandon Mary, nor to put her away quietly. So, his reputation, standing in the community and ego were all put on the line as well. How many times do you think, in the months that would follow, that Joseph and Mary questioned their encounters with the angel? Did it really happen? What did it really mean? If God was in this, then why are the circumstances so difficult. Having to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home in the last month of pregnancy capped off the difficulty of the months that had they had endured.
Luke 2:7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
Jesus’ birth caused many reactions.
We know, from the story we have heard how Jesus’ birth brought the extremes of society together at the barn. There were the shepherds, fresh from their angelic encounter that interrupted their otherwise boring life and the royalty from the East who had followed a cosmic sign in the heavens. The reaction to Jesus’ birth was not universal excitement however.
Herod the Great, ruler of the territory we know as Palestine, was known for his savagery and insecurity. He had killed two brothers-in-law, his own wife, and two of his sons when he felt like his power was threatened. Upon hearing of the birth of one in his own kingdom called “King” by visitors from the East, he ultimately ordered the murder of all male children under the age of two.
Joseph & Mary fled to Egypt for a time, and then ultimately settled in Nazareth, a town in the northern region of Galilee where they hoped to live in relative obscurity. Galilee itself was a rural region, looked upon with some scorn by those who lived in Judea, where Jerusalem the spiritual and political center of Jewish life was. Later in Jesus life, a telling comment would be, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” It was there that they lived, as 1stcentury Jews, faithful to God’s assignment in their life, in relative obscurity, save when Jesus turned age 12, when they would make the expected pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Luke 2: 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him. 41 Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. 42 When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. 43 After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. 44 Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.45 When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” 49 “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Jesus knew his identity and purpose from early in his life.
Two additional events help us capture the “who He was” question. John the Baptist had challenged the first century Jewish religious culture by challenging people to “repent” and be baptized…a rite normally reserved for a non Jew who would undergo the ceremony as a recognition of their unclean state before God. And yet, John the Baptist urged his Jewish hearers to be baptized as recognition of THEIR uncleanness. His most severe words were reserved for the religious leaders, who considered John’s message inappropriate and irritating. In this context, comes the following story:
Matthew 3: 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.
The baptism of Jesus’ was the beginning of his public ministry.
Immediately after that public event, Jesus faced his most challenging moment of his life to date. In this context, we learn more about just who this man was, and who he claimed to be. The setting, of Jesus being confronted by Satan in the desert, calls to mind another Biblical narrative, that of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Except here, the outcome is very different. Let’s see the narrative and then draw some lessons to be learned from it:
Matthew 4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
Several principles come quickly to the surface:
- Satan challenged Jesus to use God’s power to meet His own needs
- Satan challenged Jesus to display God’s power for a reward
- Satan challenged Jesus to worship a false God for power and prestige
How Jesus handled these temptations also provides insight
- Jesus relied upon God’s word as his defense
- Jesus kept his calling clear… He knew the agenda
- Jesus’ confidence in God was unwavering
Can you imagine the temptation that underlined all of these encounters? What if Jesus did turn the stones into bread.. then he could be proclaimed the Savior of the world a she fed the hungry. What if he did demonstrate his power? Then he could be proclaimed the Savior because of his strength and authority. What if he had alleviated his suffering in order to have his needs met…that temptation must have hit particularly hard in light of what Jesus must have known was to come. But there was no miracle, there was no easy, pain free path to fulfill His life purpose. For Jesus to save others, he had to not save himself.
Why did Jesus restrain himself? Why not banish Satan from his presence and not endure the temptations? Why overcome the temptations and only go on to endure a life of hardship and difficulty? Why does God restrain himself when bad men triumph? When evil seems victorious? It is because He will not compel us to love Him, will not force us to serve Him. While the world and Satan uses external and coercive force to compel obedience, God only uses internal and noncoercive invitations to love Him. God restrains himself because, while a show of force can compel obedience, only love can summon a response of love. If we choose to love God, we do so voluntarily. John’s gospel tells us who Jesus is in these words.
John 1:6 There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.9 The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God–13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth
And so today, we too have our first glimpse at the one who called himself the “Light of the World”. And today, we too begin the journey of discovering why God would come to this earth in human form. Why would God, all powerful and all mighty, come in the form of a helpless babe in a first century barn surrounded by animals and without proper attire? Why would he live as a child in a harsh and difficult country? Why would he be baptized in front of a crowd in a first century desert by an itinerant preacher? And why would he allow Himself to be tempted, and why would he not allow his needs to be met by the power so obviously available to Him?
These and many other questions are only resolved when we understand not only who He was, but why He came. And that is what we will endeavor to learn next week.